Kentucky is dominant right now, but is their focus waning?
I can remember few Senior Nights where the honorees played as well as this. Josh Harrellson played pretty well last year on his senior night, but didn't capture scoring honors. Anyway, it was a great memory for Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas, and Vargas saw his second-highest number of minutes this year with 16 (he had 17 against the Samford Bulldogs).
Miller had the kind of game last night that Kentucky fans really appreciate on a player's senior night. Not only was he willing and able to shoot the ball when he was open, but he shared it as well. Miller's career has been one of the most productive four-year careers in recent history, and among 4-year players is 7th in UK history in career 3-point%, as well as having the 10th most 3-point makes in UK history, a position that is still likely to improve.
Now, though, it's time to focus on the Florida Gators. We have seen Florida take an unfortunate (for them) slide in recent games, dropping their last two in a row against the Georgia Bulldogs and Vanderbilt Commodores, both on the road. Florida lost reserve forward Will Yeguete to a broken foot recently, and that has severely hampered them as they were already paper-thin in the front court, and Yeguete was the best offensive rebounder on the team. Immediately after the loss of Yeguete, Florida promptly dropped an inexplicable game to Georgia, then lost a reasonably well-fought game in Vanderbilt (no shame in that, generally).
Interestingly, it wasn't rebounding that cost the Gators either game. Florida lost mainly on the strength of very poor defense, which has haunted this team all year. Florida is the second-worst team in the conference when it comes to defending the three, and they are allowing 7 made three-pointers per game for SEC opponents. That's a danger zone number, for as the number of made three approach 10, winning becomes harder and harder.
To make matters worse, the Gators are not exactly defining defensive prowess from inside the arc. This is mainly due to their lack of front-court depth, as they can ill afford fouls on their big people and so have to play defense rather passively in the paint. Florida is currently 7th in the league in 2-point defense considering conference foes only, but they have been much better at home than on the road defensively.
Florida is definitely in a tough place with Kentucky coming in as hot as they are, and the interior defense of Florida must be particularly concerning. What will be going for the Gators in this one is a sense of urgency after having dropped two games in a row, as well as what will undoubtedly be an electric atmosphere in the O-dome on Sunday for the annual showdown between two of only three clubs in the SEC to have ever won the NCAA Tournament. Florida has put up some blistering offensive numbers in Gainesville, including a 1.43 points/possession game recently against the Arkansas Razorbacks, a team that matches up very well against the Gators.
Kentucky goes into this game with a ton of confidence, but lately has been showing some signs that they might "need that loss" after all. We have watched some lackadaisical play out of the 'Cats a couple of times in recent games, although they have always righted the ship, and with but one exception have turned to rend the opponent and leave them wondering what hit them. While that is an entertaining way to play, it does cause the astute basketball observer to question their focus, and now is not the time when John Calipari wants to be wondering about focus.
Yes, I'm aware that I was arguing against needing a loss a couple of weeks ago, but that was then and this is now. I want to point out that I'm still not convinced one is necessary; perhaps the advent of the SEC Tournament and the impending one-and-done NCAA Tournament will provide the necessary motivation to concentrate their collective mind, but I am not as skeptical of the question as I was back five games ago.
It would seem, on the surface, that the upcoming game with the Gators is just such an opportunity -- a tough SEC road contest in one of the loudest arenas in the conference versus a well-coached and talented team -- and normally I would agree with that. But the Gators match up so poorly with Kentucky, and the Wildcats have been so disciplined in their 3-point defense lately, that I'm having trouble concocting a scenario where Kentucky does not manhandle the Gators and shoot a very high percentage from close to the basket. Florida could always make 14 threes, but given the porosity of their 2-point defense and thin front line, that might not even be enough.
One thing I am not concerned about is history. It has been said that no team has gone this long without a loss and won the NCAA tournament since Indiana did it back in 1976, and that is so. But I don't believe it that sort of karma. The 2003 Wildcats showed no ill effects from an undefeated season, and even though revisionist history is absolutely the worst kind, I attribute the loss to Marquette more to the injury to Keith Bogans in the prior game against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Anyway, for my money, this is about the most meaningless tilt of the season for Kentucky, and it is pregnant with implications for the Gators, and could well make a 2 or 3 seed difference in their NCAA position depending on the outcome of this game combined with the Gators' SEC Tournament result. In summary, not only do they need this game much worse than UK, but Florida is playing with a sense of their backs being against the wall.
In all, Sunday will be most interesting.